“Mulholland Drive” and the Power That Lurks in the Shadows

In “Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives” we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss. This week is David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.


Everything is sex
Except sex which is power
You know, power is just sex
Now ask yourself who’s screwing you
— Janelle Monáe, “Screwed”

When Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, was released six months after his death, it was, to quote Martin Scorsese, “severely misunderstood.” The year after Wild Things, the same year as Cruel Intentions, audiences expected an erotic thriller. The trailer featuring Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing” and Nicole Kidman slipping out of a dress promised as much.

Instead the film, withholds sex, a representation of its protagonist’s own frustrations. The film is comic in the way it leads Tom Cruise as Dr. Bill Hartford from sexual scenario to sexual scenario denying him no more than a kiss. The world of sex is merely one of many worlds denied to this paragon of upper middle class desperation.

After sneaking into a masked orgy — where he is quickly identified as an imposter — Bill begins to fear for his life. He has entered into an elite world with rules he cannot fathom. An elite world that would never admit someone of even the doctor’s immense privilege.

Ultimately, Bill ends up at the house of one of his rich patients, a man whose power did, in fact, grant him a formal invitation to the party Bill crashed. This client chastises Bill for his imposition.

“Who do you think those people were?” he says. “Those were not just ordinary people there. If I told you their names — I’m not going to tell you their names — but if I did, I don’t think you’d sleep so well.”

Bill asks if the woman he met at the party was killed; if his piano player buddy who told him about the event is alright. The patient reassures Bill it’s all a game. But he’s not convincing. Especially when Bill is encouraged, for his safety, to let. it. go.

Over the past 25 years, Eyes Wide Shut has been critically reappraised. Most people now understand that while the film is centered around sex and a marital dispute, its deeper themes are about class, masculinity, and power.

It’s time a similar reappraisal is given to, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, another misidentified erotic thriller released two years later. This film was not as maligned — it won Best Director at Cannes and was nominated for Best Director at the Oscars — but its reputation as a puzzle box has hidden elements of its cavernous meaning. It’s a film rightfully celebrated for its aesthetics, its sounds, and its performances. It’s a film deserving of its reputation as erotic and entertaining. But David Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece has a thematic core that has been largely ignored.

Mulholland Drive is a film about power.

***

The DVD copy of Mulholland Drive I first rented from the library over a decade ago came with an insert of clues. It was a single sheet of paper suggesting moments to observe throughout the film, in order to solve it. But art is not meant to be solved — it’s meant to be felt, it’s meant to be discussed, it’s meant to be pondered.

And, besides, if you’re looking for plot coherence, Mulholland Drive really isn’t that complicated.

David Lynch has made other films — like Lost Highway, like Inland Empire — that live in a world of narrative abstraction. There is no aha moment, but rather several moments of unsettling emotional clarity. But Mulholland Drive, at least upon multiple viewings, is much more straight-forward.

Mulholland Drive is about a woman named Diane who moved to LA from Deep River, Ontario to become an actress. She met another wannabe actress named Camilla Rhodes and the two women began dating — or, at least, hooking up. Diane’s career stalled while Camilla’s rose. Diane fell in love while Camilla moved on. By the time the film begins Camilla has moved on completely, to stardom, to an engagement with director Adam Kesher. Diane is grief-stricken about the end of this relationship and the failures of her career.

Diane does what any other sad lesbian would do: She hires a hitman to kill Camilla.

The film begins in Diane’s nightmare or her purgatory or a frightening day dream. The first two hours of this two and a half hour film take place in an alternate reality. Here Diane is a woman named Betty, fresh-faced in Hollywood with her dreams sure to come true. She casts Camilla as an unnamed woman who goes by Rita, the survivor of a car accident whose amnesia hides her mysterious past. In this fantasy, Camilla as Rita needs Diane as Betty. She’s confused and defenseless and only Betty can save the day.

The fantasy continues in other aspects of her life. Betty has an audition that she nails despite being told she’s too good for the project. Meanwhile, in this world there’s another actress named Camilla who is only rewarded a part because of her mob connections. Director Adam longs instead for Betty, seeing her only once but knowing she’s the one who should really get the part.

And, in Diane’s fantasy, Adam’s approval is not all she desires. She also wants to humiliate him. His refusal to listen to the mob — and his adulterous wife — lead to a series of absurd encounters that make him look weak and ridiculous.

What first appear as non-sequiturs are further extrapolations of Diane’s remix of reality. Her anxieties about her hit man’s abilities manifest in a scene where he does a job poorly. Her dark feelings at the diner where she hands over the money manifest into a creature living behind the diner’s dumpster.

So, there it is, Mulholland Drive has been solved. Now what? Because the strengths of the film aren’t in its “twist” or the connecting of clues. Lynch’s film is brilliant due to the feelings it evokes, the way it captures an oppressive darkness so many of us experience but fail to fully understand.

***

Most actors are in a constant state of uncertainty. You audition, you wait to hear if you got a callback. You get a callback, you wait to hear if you got the part. You get the part, you wait to hear if the movie or TV show did well enough to get you more auditions or the show gets another season or if the pilot even got picked up. And, even if you’re successful enough to know casting directors and filmmakers, the ultimate decision lies above them. My actor friends are often told by their reps something like: “The director loved you, but the studio/network wanted something else.”

Something else. How vague.

Most people will not experience the specific devastations of actors like Mulholland Drive’s Diane Selwyn, but the freelance nature of acting is being replicated in more and more careers. It’s less common now for people to have a steady job at the same company for decades. It’s far more likely that a person is at the whims of corporate decision makers.

Even for people whose jobs are steady, other aspects of life are controlled by faceless entities. More apartments and other forms of housing are owned by corporations rather than individuals. And while we get to vote for politicians, we don’t vote for the lobbyists that control their decisions.

The wider the gap between the ultra wealthy and everybody else, the more obscured every tangible aspect of our world becomes. There are powerful people making decisions that affect all of our lives who we don’t know; there are powerful people we do know about who nevertheless conceal the specifics of their actions.

It’s understandable that so many people believe in conspiracy theories. Even something like QAnon, believed by some of the worst people to maintain the power of even worse people, is a response to something real. There are forces beyond our control pulling the strings in ways that would horrify us. This gut knowledge is manipulated and redirected by some of those most at fault.

When people lack answers, we make up stories. And that’s exactly what leads to Diane’s fantasy. To cope with guilt, to understand, she makes up a story.

***

While the scenes between “Betty” and “Rita” are most revealing about Diane and Camilla’s characters and relationship, it’s the Adam Kesher subplot that’s most revealing about the film itself.

When Adam shows up to a meeting with the studio, his agent tells him to keep an open mind. He’s immediately combative, a parody of the kind of enfant terrible artist Lynch himself has oft been accused of being. And yet, it quickly becomes clear it’s not the studio itself Adam needs to worry about. In fact, the studio employees are more nervous than anyone.

Enter the Castigliane brothers. If Adam is a humorous parody of a bad boy director, these guys are the blunt satire you might find in something called A Very Mafia Movie. They’re grumpy, old Italian Americans with threatening auras and one of them always orders an espresso before spitting it out into a napkin, displeased. They’ve arrived at this meeting to tell Adam who his new lead actress will be.

He isn’t having it and he smashes their car with a golf club to show his distaste. Soon enough his bank accounts are cleared and an even bigger goon is showing up to his house. He’s instructed to drive to a mysterious road to meet a threatening man known as The Cowboy. And, finally scared straight, he gives into the Castigliane brothers’ demands and casts their girl.

And yet, the intrigue goes even beyond what Adam can see. The Castigliane brothers aren’t at the top. There is a whole other layer of ringing phones and private rooms and a mysterious man taking calls in isolation. This is where the real decisions are made.

While this can all be interpreted as the elaborate fantasy of an actress who can’t stomach her middling career, it’s more accurate to say it’s someone who works in film processing the mysteries of the business through film tropes.

Even if Diane’s interpretation of Hollywood backrooms is a touch fantastical, it’s true that the artists who make movies are often excluded from the decisions about those movies. (And, after all, once upon a time Frank Sinatra secured a role due to his mob connections so maybe it’s not so far-fetched.) Just look at the recent pattern of executives deleting finished films for tax write-offs. One need only read about the recent Coyote vs. Acme situation to understand the desire to make sense of callous greed.

If the top executives answer to the board and the board answers to the shareholders, then who is flying the plane? Who is actually making the decisions that impact the lives of everyone in the film and television industry? Who is actually making the decisions that impact the lives of people in every industry? Who is deciding our laws? Who is deciding which countries are at war and which innocent people are slaughtered? How often do the most powerful people have someone else they can blame? And how often is that someone else not a person at all, but an idea?

Maybe the mysterious man isn’t a man at all. Maybe he’s a manifestation of bigotries. Maybe he’s a manifestation of capitalism.

Do the masks at the Eyes Wide Shut orgy hide the faces of emperors? Or is the party a mere reward for society’s richest and least empathetic foot soldiers?

***

Mulholland Drive, itself, is a product of Hollywood decision-making.

It began as a TV pilot, but ABC (who at ABC? who’s to say!) rejected it for being, well, too Lynchian. Lynch then reworked the footage and shot additional footage, making the Betty/Rita relationship sexual, and adding the final section. This recontextualization is enough proof that the depths of the first two hours go beyond the simple “Diane’s dream” explanation.

After all, if the first two hours are a work of Diane’s storytelling, the whole film is a work of Lynch’s. And hit men are far more a fiction of Hollywood than gangsters — even stereotypical mafia gangsters.

To call the final section of Mulholland Drive reality, is to reduce the complexities of Lynch’s cinema. Even if it’s the reality of the film, it’s still a film. Or, rather, a TV pilot turned into a film.

In that way, the final section’s reality is akin to that of another Lynch film about the darkness hidden beneath a sunny service. Blue Velvet does for the suburbs what Mulholland Drive does for Hollywood. Lynch has long been preoccupied with these secret forces, the evils underneath that operate while people try to live their lives.

He is Betty investigating the darkness with cheery excitement. Lynch and his characters are outsiders, but not outsiders with envy like Eyes Wide Shut’s doctor. They are outsiders who want to expose the world’s darkness, not join it — even if that separation is not always easy to maintain.

There is always darkness buried within Lynch’s characters. We, ourselves, are the worms hidden underneath the overturned rock. But in Mulholland Drive, Lynch reminds us that underneath that rock and us worms are several feet of soil. And underneath that soil is bedrock. And underneath the bedrock down, down, down is the Earth’s core.

Evil lives in the core. That is the truest story of them all.


Mulholland Drive is now streaming on The Criterion Channel.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 520 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. I love what you pointed out about the lack of any real, physical or personal power behind all the machinations of money and power. It aligns with something I realized lately after hearing so many people complain about how the rich people are controlling everything and everyone, implying that they are some-how winning at life. Which might seem true, if any of them seemed conscious, lucid, or happy. Instead, the majority of them look and act just as desperate and out-of-control as any person addicted to drugs, which many of them also are. This just indicates that there are larger wheels turning with no human moving them, just a lot of finger pointing and imaginary greener lawns somewhere else.

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